The future of Oahu’s municipal landfill at Waimanalo Gulch is again in question after a committee charged with helping to choose a location for its replacement rejected all the options it was given. 

On Monday, the Landfill Advisory Committee voted against recommending any of the six proposed sites, citing concerns that a landfill in those locations could contaminate the island’s drinking water, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. The city is under orders to choose a new location by the end of the year. 

What happens now is unclear. The city could choose one of the six locations anyway, look for new areas it hadn’t previously considered – which might require a deadline extension from the state Land Use Commission – or it could ask the commission to keep Waimanalo Gulch open indefinitely.

That last option would be deeply unpopular with West Oahu residents, who have said for years that they unfairly bear the burden of handling the island’s trash. 

“The community is going to be upset,” said Hawaii Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, who represents Oahu’s leeward side.

Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill Makai Ko Olina
Waimanalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill is located near Ko Olina and Kapolei’s Honokai Hale community. Ku‘u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2021

The city isn’t leaning one way or the other, Roger Babcock, the city’s director of environmental services, said on Tuesday. He acknowledged the environmental justice considerations for the Westside community but also said no option is off the table. 

“We want, of course, what is best for everyone, for public health. But of course, we will have to have a landfill,” he said. “Unfortunately with a landfill, you’re usually choosing between the lesser of two evils.” 

The city has been planning to shutter the current landfill in Kapolei after the state Land Use Commission said in 2019 that under its current permit, the site would have to close by 2028. The LUC said the city needed to have a plan for a new site by the end of 2022. 

Mayor Rick Blangiardi appointed volunteers to a Landfill Advisory Committee last year to rank sites for the new landfill.

Committee members were presented with a color-coded map of Oahu that blocked off areas that couldn’t be used for various reasons. For example, federal land was excluded, as were large swaths affected by Act 73. Passed in 2020, the law requires a half-mile buffer zone between landfills and schools, homes and hospitals and prohibits landfills in conservation districts. 

Oahu Landfill Siting Map
The Department of Environmental Services created a siting map for the Landfill Advisory Committee. The colors represent areas where it cannot be located. Screenshot: City and County of Honolulu

With already limited options, the committee’s work was further complicated by a presentation by the Honolulu Board of Water Supply, which said all of the proposed sites threatened the island’s drinking water.

BWS recommended selecting a site located away from the island’s aquifer.  

But there weren’t any sites within the city’s parameters that also satisfied the BWS guidance. 

Nicole Chatterson, executive director of Zero Waste Oahu, applauded members’ decision not to recommend any of the proposed sites. 

While it is “unacceptable” for the Leeward Coast to carry the weight of island infrastructure forever, Chatterson said the reality is that Waimanalo Gulch still has many years of capacity left. And it doesn’t make sense to rush into a new site that threatens the island’s water supply, she said. 

“We were selecting from poor choices,” she said. “We’ve seen what can happen with Red Hill. We know landfills leech. So why do it?” 

Jonathan Likeke Scheuer, chair of the state Land Use Commission, said that contrary to popular belief, there is a way the city could continue operating the landfill at Waimanalo Gulch after 2028. 

It just can’t do so under its current special permit, which is intended for temporary projects, he said. To keep Waimanalo Gulch open, the city would need a district boundary amendment – in other words, to convert the land from agricultural land to urban, according to Scheuer. 

west oahu special project badge

Scheuer said he would actually encourage the city to apply for one but it hasn’t done so.

“For whatever reason, the city has refused to do that,” he said. “It beats the hell outta me.”

Babcock acknowledged that siting a landfill is a political challenge as well as an environmental one. 

“No matter where we choose is partly a political decision,” he said. “There are environmental justice and equity issues at play.” 

The operations at Waimanalo Gulch have not been perfect, to say the least. Community members were rightfully horrified when poor management at the landfill allowed trash to flow into the ocean during a 2010 storm, Chatterson said. But technological upgrades have been installed since that should prevent that from happening again, according to Chatterson. 

“We’re closing a perfectly usable landfill early,” she said. “I think closing it early is not in the public’s interest.” 

The city could ask the Land Use Commission for an extension, seek amendments to Act 73 at the Legislature, and figure out possible ways to make use of federal land, Chatterson suggested. 

There also needs to be a focus on reducing trash to begin with, she said. 

“For a community to accept these tremendous negative impacts of hosting a landfill, it is everyone’s duty to put as little in the landfill as possible so we don’t have to keep re-siting them in someone’s backyard or on conservation land,” she said. 

“All these options are not great.” 

This report was made possible in part by the Fund for Environmental Journalism of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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